As I reported earlier this week, the James Beard Foundation is moving its restaurant and chef awards to Chicago next year. I asked around about how people felt about that, and although some people groused about damaging a tradition (one asked if maybe the Kentucky Derby would be moved to California next), and one New York City photographer complained to me that that was another job she wasn't going to get next year (true enough), most people don't seem to have much of a problem with it.
I thought maybe some chefs would complain that they won't have the excuse to spend the weekend eating and drinking their way across New York City and would have to go to Chicago instead, but they didn’t. I'd guess that's because, although they won't be coming to New York, the will be going to Chicago, and if you ask me, that's as least as good.
The Wall Street Journal, reporting on the move (with one error — the Beard Awards haven't been at Lincoln Center every year since 1990; the first awards were a booze cruise and for quite a few years after that they were held at the Marriott Marquis), quoted a spokesman from New York City mayor Bill de Blasio as saying, "We’re always sad to lose a staple from the city's culinary world — but even with the James Beard awards, Chicago still can't beat New York City’s food scene.”
I beg to differ.
Sure, New York has a great food scene, and I think it still has the deepest bench when it comes to fine dining chefs, as well as great Italian food and servers who know how to pronounce “agnolotti.” But pretty much every major city in the United States has a great food scene now, and so do plenty of non-major cities. And I'd argue that Chicago's food scene is now more dynamic than New York’s.
Chicagoans have embraced culinary adventure at places like Alinea, Moto and Graham Elliot in ways that New Yorkers never have, WD~50 notwithstanding. Chefs like Paul Kahan and Bil Kim were pioneers in cooking awesome food in more casual settings, and for every pizza, bagel or deli sandwich you can point to in New York, Chicago has deep-dish pizza, hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches, as well as caramel-cheddar popcorn. Also, rents are cheaper in Chicago, which allows restaurants there to cater to a more specific set of clientele rather than trying to please everyone, and cooks can have a more reasonable standard of living.
The debate about which city has the best food could go on and on (and by all means, go ahead and comment below — be my guest, call me names, live it up, and don't be shy about singing the praises of Los Angeles and San Francisco or any other city you like), but my main point is that fantastic food can be had all over the country, and I think the Beard Foundation is wise to accept that fact.
And maybe it will be a nice little wakeup call for New York’s restaurateurs.